Your guide to gift cards - they're not all the same

Chances are gift cards are on your shopping list. Once again this year, they top the holiday wish list.

Keep in mind: There are two different types of gift cards.

Brand-specific gift cards can only be used at one store. For instance, you can only use a Staples gift card at Staples.

General purpose gift cards, which are sold by banks and credit card companies, can be used all over the place.

Janna Herron, credit card analyst at, says that flexibility explains why general purpose cards are more popular.

"People like these cards because they're very convenient, but the person who buys it is going to pay a purchase fee," she said. "And on the back end, the recipient could be charged some additional fees if they don't use their card in a timely manner."

Again, store-branded cards don't have a fee. General purpose card always do.

Finance experts say rather than give someone a general purpose gift card, you'd be better off giving them cash or a check.

Expiration dates used to be a big problem with gift cards. Not anymore. Retail cards sold in Washington cannot expire. Federal law requires gift cards issued by a bank or credit card company to stay active for 5 years.

More Info: Compare gift cards

Who's gifting, and who's getting gift cards this year?